Gather around the table: WNC rallies for Hunger Action Month

FOOD SECURITY FOR ALL: As the demand for food assistance in WNC continues to grow, local food-security organizations are embracing September, designated national Hunger Action Month, as a chance to raise awareness about the issue. Here, volunteers and staff at MANNA FoodBank raise orange spoons — the symbol of the Hunger Action Month initiative. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank

September is designated national Hunger Action Month by Feeding America. Throughout September, Xpress will feature a series of stories examining the issue of food insecurity and how local individuals and organizations are working toward the goal of eradicating hunger in Western North Carolina.

Orange may not be everyone’s new black, but hundreds of local organizations are hoping the color will serve as a call to action this month for alleviating food insecurity in Western North Carolina.

Designated national Hunger Action Month eight years ago by domestic hunger-relief organization Feeding America, September will see the initiative’s official color of orange highlighted in Asheville on T-shirts as well as on smartphone screens via social media campaigns. The ultimate goal is to raise awareness about hunger issues in the community and spotlight ways everyone can be a part of ending the pervasive problem.

On the surface, the idea of establishing food security for all seems like an impossibly lofty ambition. With more than 15 percent of the population of WNC identified as food-insecure by the 2014 Map the Meal Gap study (and that number steadily climbing), eradicating hunger seems to be a goal as worthy yet elusive as achieving world peace. But to Feeding America, its local partner MANNA FoodBank and MANNA’s extensive network of partner agencies, creating communities where everyone has enough nutritious food is no pipe dream.

Hunger Action Month efforts hold special significance this year at the national level. When Congress returns to session early this month, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry will meet to consider a package of legislation reauthorizing child nutrition programs. And locally, MANNA, which serves a 16-county area via 248 individual food pantries and distribution programs, sees September 2015 as a milestone in its work toward eradicating food insecurity in WNC.

Strategic enhancements

MANNA, which has partnered with Feeding America since 1993, begins major changes to its facilities this month that will have a dramatic impact on its ability to get nutritious fresh and frozen food — much of which may otherwise end up in the landfill — into the hands of people who desperately need it.

According to MANNA’s executive director, Cindy Threlkeld, the organization has now raised $2.6 million of the $3 million goal of its Space to Erase Hunger capital campaign, launched in early 2014. The purpose of the campaign is to fund extensive renovations and upgrades at MANNA’s two buildings on Swannanoa River Road, including a build-out in one of the warehouses that will result in a 400 percent expansion of freezer space and a 171 percent increase in cooler space — effectively an entire warehouse dedicated to fresh and frozen foods.

SPACE TO ERASE: Cindy Threlkeld, executive director of MANNA FoodBank, stands inside the organization's current cooler space. Funding raised during MANNA's Space to Erase Hunger capital campaign will allow for a buildout that will significantly increase both cooler and freezer space.
SPACE TO ERASE: Cindy Threlkeld, executive director of MANNA FoodBank, stands inside the organization’s current cooler space. Funding raised during MANNA’s Space to Erase Hunger capital campaign will allow for a buildout that will significantly increase both cooler and freezer space. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank

The idea behind Space to Erase Hunger originated about three years ago. “The first canary in the mine shaft was realizing our freezer and cooler space was just way too small,” says Threlkeld. “We started having to turn away donations of great food simply because we didn’t have the space to keep it cold — truckloads of yogurt, truckloads of frozen chickens, I mean, really the kind of food we want to be bringing in the door.”

Part of MANNA’s recently adopted five-year strategic plan calls for an increased focus on providing more nutrient-dense fresh produce, dairy products and meats, in addition to canned goods and other shelf-stable products. Currently, a little less than a quarter of the food MANNA distributes to the community is fresh produce, but the aim is to bring that number to more than a third.

Around the same time the issue of cold-storage space arose, Threlkeld continues, MANNA began to see that its warehouses weren’t organized efficiently. The two buildings were purchased at different times, and neither one was originally set up to serve as a food bank. One of the buildings, for instance, didn’t have loading docks on one side. “So if you wanted to move product back and forth, which we have to do all the time, we had to put it on a truck, take it out on Swannanoa River Road and bring it around to the other side — even just for small amounts of food — because there wasn’t even a way for us to get a forklift in the building,” says Threlkeld.

Pro bono logistical evaluations and consultations supplied by experts from Wal-Mart, Ingles and the Beacon Group helped MANNA get a grasp on what needed to happen. Phase 1 of the project, which was executed in late 2014, added the needed truck docks, moved the main warehouse area and enlarged the facility’s volunteer space and meeting rooms.

Phase 2 kicks off this month. In addition to adding 2,500 square feet of freezer space and 11,000 square feet of refrigerator space, safety and efficiency should be dramatically improved. MANNA is moving the entrance for visitors and volunteers to one side of the building so trucks and representatives from partner agencies can enter safely on the opposite side. (In the current setup, large box trucks come and go in the same space where clients, staff and visitors park and enter the offices.)

Phase 2 also calls for shifting the organization’s current single floor of office space into two stories of rooms efficiently stacked into one corner of the main building. This upgrade will allow for the creation of a larger produce floor for sorting huge donations of vegetables and fruit from such stores as Ingles and Wal-Mart, as well as from area farmers and gardeners. It will also provide for a clean volunteer room for repackaging bulk grains, pastas, crackers and dried fruit into individual and family-sized bags for distribution.

But the reorganization will also send MANNA office staff packing — and they are headed downtown.

After learning of MANNA’s need for office space, the McKibben Hotel Group, one of the companies involved in the BB&T redevelopment project, donated temporary use of the first floor of the building for that purpose. MANNA staff will operate from this central new location from October through March of next year, when the renovations at Swannanoa River Road are slated to be complete.

Some large-scale Tetris-playing will be involved in making it all work, with volunteer and storage areas needing to be shuffled to different parts of the building. But one would be mistaken to think that all this moving around will disrupt MANNA’s daily operating procedures. “So, the logistics are crazy,” says Threlkeld. “But we’re not going to miss a single day of operations. We are going to keep going at full speed the whole time.

“We’re trying to inconvenience the least number of people but, yes, it’s going to be pretty chaotic for four or five months,” she says.

The bigger picture

But will improved efficiency and more cold-storage space at MANNA be a boon to its widely scattered partner agencies, many of which are tiny, all-volunteer operations?

MANNA’s chief operating officer, Jill Hanson, says yes. “Our agencies are looking forward to the expanded capacity,” she says. “We did some surveys about it, and even a survey by Feeding America indicated that people want more healthy items in their diets. We’re making a shift to provide healthier options for our agencies, and this will definitely help us do that.”

PLAYING IT COOL: Amy Grimes Sims, executive director of the Community Table in Sylva, says MANNA’s planned cold-storage expansion will be a boon to her organization’s soup kitchen and food distribution efforts. Photo courtesy of the Community Table

Amy Grimes Sims, executive director of the Community Table, a MANNA partner in Dillsboro, agrees. “We are greatly anticipating the capacity-boosting happening at MANNA as we continue to see new clients each week in both our food pantry and soup kitchen programs,” says Sims. “Between both our programs, literally over 1,000 pounds of food goes out our doors each day, and we can do more if we have it to give. The Community Table has seven refrigerators and 11 freezers that we would love to see stay full, and we have a great need for meats, produce, dairy and frozen and refrigerated items. Basically, our greatest need is for healthy foods, which are always more expensive.”

Another beneficiary will be Bounty & Soul, a volunteer-run, health- and wellness-focused agency in Black Mountain that recently launched a mobile program delivering free, fresh produce and presenting cooking demonstrations in outlying communities. “We get quite a bit of our produce from MANNA on a weekly basis,” says executive director Ali Casparian. “We typically pick up and distribute over 3,000 pounds of produce when available every week. As their largest agency focused on healthy food and fresh produce, their expansion is critical to our growth as well.” Casparian adds that, although Bounty & Soul does source from local farmers and community gardens during the growing season, its programs also rely heavily on MANNA, especially during the winter months. “We hope to see an improvement in the selection, variety and volume as a result of their changes. They are great partners.”

Additional meats, dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables will also come in handy for Renae Brame, executive director of the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry in Black Mountain. Currently, she has to go out and buy these items for her organization’s food pantry when none are available from MANNA. That requires funds that could be used for other purposes at the ministry, which also helps clients with household goods, clothing and emergency financial needs. SVCM has the space to store fresh and frozen foods, says Brame, and she welcomes whatever MANNA can offer them. “Anything we can provide to our clients is certainly a help,” she says. “We try to encourage [clients] to eat fresh food, and we love to have it on hand. Whatever we get, we give away.”

Erasing hunger

During Hunger Action Month, MANNA seeks to draw more attention to its efforts and will ask the community to help it meet the fundraising goal of its capital campaign — an endeavor that may see a substantial lift thanks to a recent $125,000 matching donation from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

MANNA will host a full calendar of events this month, including a visit from Leanne Brown, author of Good and Cheap: Eating Well on $4 a Day, the 14th annual Empty Bowls event and a wrap-up party at Highland Brewing Co. In addition, MANNA is launching a campaign inviting local people to wear orange and share drawings, photos of spoons (the symbol of Hunger Action Month) and selfies on social media with messages of support for Hunger Action Month.

While some partner agencies throughout the 16-county area are too small and stretched too thin to host individual events, many do have special plans. The Community Table will partner with Andy Shaw Ford and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort to present its biggest fundraiser to date — Drive Hunger Away, a barbecue event featuring lunch and dinner along with free test drives of new cars.

Meanwhile, Casparian says Bounty & Soul has a lineup of events planned, including screenings of the documentary film A Place at the Table, a used book drive and an internal Let’s Bag Hunger initiative that will provide recyclable orange shopping bags to new clients and volunteers. (See sidebar for details about Hunger Action Month events.)

Collective impact

But Threlkeld and Casparian both acknowledge that it’s going to take a lot more to actually eradicate food insecurity than just handing out free food and hosting movie screenings.

“We look at hunger as all-encompassing; it’s something that can be addressed in different ways,” says Casparian, who offers regular classes on nutrition and gardening through Bounty & Soul. “Certainly, giving out food is important, but we’re looking at a more sustainable model, teaching people and empowering people to make better choices and get control of their health. … We look at that and try to address all of that in our program.”

THE WHOLE PICTURE: Ali Casparian, director of Bounty & Soul, says her organization works to deal with hunger holistically by educating and empowering people through workshops on health, gardening and nutrition.
THE WHOLE PICTURE: Ali Casparian, director of Bounty & Soul, says her organization works to deal with hunger holistically by educating and empowering people through workshops on health, gardening and nutrition. Photo courtesy of Bounty & Soul

MANNA also aims for a holistic model by helping clients navigate the process of signing up for SNAP benefits (the U.S. government’s food stamps program) and connecting them to other agencies that can address problems not related to food. This idea of forming partnerships with different organizations to meet clients’ needs is known in the spheres of social services and philanthropy as “collective impact.”

“So many people are faced with these impossible decisions: Do I pay the electric bill, or do I buy food? There’s a whole continuum of what it’s going to take to end hunger, and our vision is to have a hunger-free Western North Carolina, and that’s a pretty bold statement,” says Threlkeld.

“We’re not going to end hunger by just continuing to move food in and out [of our warehouses]. … We really need to be looking at how we can pull together with other organizations in our community that are also working with people who are struggling to make ends meet, who have to make those trade-off decisions.”

The strategic goals of MANNA’s new five-year plan, Threlkeld explains, call for collaboration to meet the urgent needs of marginalized citizens so they can feel confident moving forward to build self-sufficient and successful lives. “We are working together with other organizations like Pisgah Legal and Homeward Bound and On Track; we’re coming around the table together to look at how we can help people put together a whole package that’s going to help them take that next step to stabilize their family,” she says. “Then we’re going to end hunger in Western North Carolina.”




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